A Touch of Zen (King Hu / Taiwan, 1969):
(Xia Nu)

More than just a Touch: King Huís camera tracks along with soldiers as they enter a haunted fort, and itís like Mizoguchi is alive and well and shooting kung-fu epics. The foundation is Pu Songling (Strange Tales from Liu Jai), the progression is from a spiderís web in the dark to the bleeding Buddha whose radiance literally blocks out the sun. Part One introduces the callow scholar (Shih Chun), an aspiring portraitist and bachelor whose mother crankily scoffs at Confucian koans. His lovely, mysterious neighbor (Hsu Feng) is an incognito noblewoman with "unfinished business" with the East Chamberís evil Eunuch, her bodyguards (Pai Ying, Sit Hon) are brave generals ŗ la Mifune in The Hidden Fortress. The heroine invites the bookworm into her bed, but is unsure about his contribution to her vengeful plans: "Iím afraid youíre not the duel-to-the-death type." Part Two braids the realms of politics and mysticism, and brings the scholarís knowledge of the mechanics of superstition into play (the morning reveals the trickery of the "army of ghosts" ruse, and the very real, human toll of battle). Next to Chang Chehís studio arenas, Huís battleground is an open-air temple: The moon is reflected on pond water, a slashed villainís blood squirts onto a pale shrine, the frame widens and the tempo quickens to encompass the charactersí machinations and epiphanies. Hu stages skirmishes for beauty and force, and for the synergy between the sumptuous physicality of the choreography and the grave spirituality of the landscape -- the Abbot (Roy Chiao Hung) and his yellow-robed disciples quell imperial guards by a riverbed of white rocks, the great, emerald-green forest ambush contrasts the verticals of the bamboo trees with the horizontals of hurled daggers and arrows and the diagonals and curves of the airborne warriors. Chivalry, transcendence, Buddhaís "heat haze" shot like Leoneís desert. The Abbotís final showdown with the treacherous East Chamber official (Han Ying-Chieh) adduces a golden note from Liang Kaiís painting Drunken Celestial to complete the illumination. With Miao Tien, Chang Ping-Yu, Billy Chan, Han Hsue, Lam Ching-Ying, and Sammo Hung.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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